Why the Metric System Might Be Screwed

International Bureau of Weights and Measures
International Bureau of Weights and Measures

The world’s most perfect weight isn’t so perfect anymore. And that has scientists scared.

Hidden in a vault outside Paris, vacuum-sealed under three bell jars, sits a palm-sized metal cylinder known as the International Prototype Kilogram, or “Le Grand K.” Forged in 1879 from an alloy of platinum and iridium, it was hailed as the “perfect” kilogram—the gold standard by which other kilograms would be judged.

Although it’s arguably the world’s most famous weight, Le Grand K doesn’t get out much. Since hydrocarbons on fingertips or moisture in the air could contaminate its pristine surface, it goes untouched for decades, under triple lock and key at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. Every 40 years, however, it makes an appearance. The weight is ushered from its chamber, washed with alcohol, polished, and weighed against 80 official replicas hand-delivered from laboratories around the world. Today, whenever scientists need to verify something is precisely one kilogram, they turn to one of these replicas, over which Le Grand K reigns supreme.

This system sounds absurd, but not too long ago, lots of units relied on similar methods. The kilogram was just one of seven standards of measurement established by the French Academy of Sciences in 1791, all based on physical prototypes. These benchmarks caught on worldwide because standardization was sorely needed. At the time, some 250,000 different units of weights and measures existed in France alone, which meant that the only constant was complete chaos.

Weight Problem

While basing measurements on tangible benchmarks was an improvement, using physical standards wasn’t without its flaws. For one, they have a nasty habit of changing. In Le Grand K’s case, it’s been losing weight. At its most recent weigh-in in 1988, it was found to be 0.05 milligrams—about the weight of a grain of sand—lighter than its underling replicas. Experts aren’t sure where this weight went, but some theorize that the replicas have been handled more often, which could subtly add weight. Others postulate Le Grand K’s alloy is “outgassing,” which means air is gradually escaping the metal.

Whatever the reason for Le Grand K’s gradual wasting away, it’s got scientists scrambling for a more reliable standard. Some argue that this is long overdue, since all other units of measurement are already defined by fundamental constants of nature that can be reproduced anywhere anytime (provided you’ve got some sophisticated lab equipment). The meter, for example, used to be defined by a metal rod stored alongside Le Grand K. But in 1983, it was redefined as the distance light travels in a vacuum during 1/299,792,458 of a second.

Standardizing the kilogram has been trickier, though. Australian scientists are polishing a one-kilogram sphere of silicon, hoping that they’ll be able to count the number of atoms it contains to create a more accurate standard. American physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are attempting to redefine a kilogram in terms of the amount of voltage required to levitate a weight. But so far, neither approach can match Le Grand K’s accuracy.

Why should we care whether a kilogram in a vault is “perfect” or not? Because it’s bad news when your standard is no longer standardized. While no one’s worried whether a single kilogram of apples is a hair lighter or heavier at the produce stand, a small discrepancy can become a gargantuan one if you’re dealing with, say, a whole tanker of wheat. The kilogram is also used as a building block in other measurements. The joule, for instance, is the amount of energy required to move a one-kilogram weight one meter. The candela, a measure of the brightness of light, is measured in joules per second.

These links mean that if the kilogram is flawed, so are the joule and candela, which could eventually cause problems in an array of industries, particularly in technology. As microchips process more information at higher speeds, even tiny deviations will lead to catastrophes. Le Grand K’s unreliability “will start to be noticeable in the next decade or two in the electronics industry,” warns NIST physicist Richard Steiner. If your next smartphone is buggy, you’ll know which hunk of metal to blame.

So scientists continue to chase the perfect kilogram. “Maybe we have all been looking for too high-tech an answer,” says Stuart Davidson of England’s National Physical Laboratory. “There could be something really obvious out there we’ve missed.” The NPL’s website encourages others to give it a shot: Any better ideas on a postcard please. Until then, Le Grand K will remain king—short of true perfection, but as perfect as it gets.

11 Science-Backed Tips for Winning an Argument

iStock
iStock

For many people, arguing is something to avoid. But arguments can be used for good—they can inform, sharpen thinking, and challenge old ideas in important ways. The expert tips below will help you argue more incisively, which, in turn, will probably make you more likely to win the discussion. (Of course, winning means different things to different people—so not all of these concepts are about making someone else think you’re right.)

1. DETERMINE THE NATURE OF THE ARGUMENT.

According to Mark Porrovecchio, a professor of rhetoric and a debate coach at Oregon State University, understanding the nature of a disagreement will help you determine how best to handle it. “Argument styles vary according to context [and] genre,” he tells Mental Floss. “What might work when arguing with a significant other could backfire when debating with a colleague. The goal is to be mindful of the type of situation you are in … and to be willing to adjust your approach based on a host of situational factors.”

You should adjust your tone—and even the content of your argument—depending on the person with whom you are having it and the place it’s happening. The conversation in a private setting may be a different from one in a public space. This particular tactic, Porrovecchio says, is as old as debate itself: Both the Sophists and Aristotle used it.

2. KNOW YOUR OPPONENT'S PERSONALITY TYPE …

Sometimes you won’t know what your opponent values or what their background is—but sometimes, you will. Use that information.

Most people are either reactive or analytical, says Prince Ghuman, a professor at Hult International Business School and coauthor of the book Allure: the Neuroscience of Consumerism. “Some people tend to be more reactive, so you can convince them using techniques that appeal to them—emotion and empathy," he tells Mental Floss. "Others seem to be more deliberate—you’ll need to provide an analytical support for your argument."

3. … AND MORAL IDENTITY.

In political and ideological arguments, different sides often have fundamentally different ways of looking at the world. According to the moral foundations theory, a framework proposed by a group of social psychologists, most people see society through six different binaries: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. A politically liberal person, for example, might be more affected by an argument that stresses compassion and fairness, whereas conservatives might find loyalty and authority to be more important. Each person will have a unique idea of which concept in each pair carries more weight, and in an argument, knowing what the other side values can help frame your talking points.

“One reason it’s so hard to reach across the ideological divide is that people tend to present their arguments in a way that appeals to the ethics of their own side, rather than that of their opponents,” journalist Olga Khazan explained in an Atlantic video. Framing your argument to appeal to your opponents' moral code rather than your own can help you win.

4. USE EMOTION—BUT DON'T REST YOUR ENTIRE ARGUMENT ON IT.

Not only is arguing sans emotion almost impossible if you're a human being, it’s also not a great way to succeed. “Every argument, even many seemingly factual arguments, contains an emotional element,” Porrovecchio says.

According to psychologist Sherrie Campbell, author of Success Equations: A Path to Living an Emotionally Wealthy Life, you should include feelings when you make your case, but don’t go too far with an emotional point—especially in professional settings. When it comes to personal disagreements, uncomfortable feelings can sometimes be necessary, and while kindness is important, so is honesty.

“Sometimes emotional arguments that bring about sadness can help people get to the core of where the hurt and frustration is," Campbell says. "As long as the person you're arguing with has empathy and can put caring over being right, then emotional arguments can be effective.”

Ideally, you should try to keep it balanced. “An argument that relies solely on emotion should be treated with suspicion,” Porrovecchio says. Feelings without information or details to back them up fall flat if the other person can’t relate.

5. MAKE YOUR CASE WITH EMPATHY.

“Connect to the listener by conveying your story through one person’s example. Personify, rather than generalize,” Ghuman suggests. He cites research [PDF] by psychologists at the University of Oregon that shows people will donate more money to an individual in need than a group of people. That’s because most of us can empathize with one person but find it harder to relate to groups in the same way. When arguing, use this tactic to your advantage by finding (or imagining) a specific person who might be helped by what you are arguing for.

For instance, if you are arguing that Peggy shouldn’t be fined for parking her car in a tow zone because she was trying to rescue a dog in the street, it would make more sense to describe who she is specifically. Rather than call her “Peggy, a dog owner,” describing her as “Peggy, who has adopted a mutt, a pitbull, and an elderly chihuahua,” would render her more sympathetic. Empathetic details shouldn't be used as replacements for factual information, though; they should be additions to the facts.

6. USE STORYTELLING.

Storytelling works hand-in-hand with empathy and puts data to support your argument in context. Pull all your information together—using empathy, facts, and emotions—to create a compelling story, and your argument will be tougher to beat. When your point seems part of a narrative arc, each aspect of what you're arguing is harder to pick on.

Need a template? Porovecchio recommends the TED format. “I think TED Talks have gained popular cachet because they often manage to balance a degree of detail and fact with a personable, narrative-driven delivery style,” he says.

7. INFLUENCE YOUR ADVERSARY WITH PHYSICAL CUES.

People unconsciously mimic others in social situations, a behavior that psychologists believe is associated with emotional connection. Consciously imitating the posture and movement of your opponent is also a well-known way to bring someone over to your side. Try leaning back if your opponent does so, or cross your arms or legs the way they do. Looking them in the eye when you are listening to them speak is another to reduce their confidence in their own argument—and you’ll look stronger, too. You can even lower your voice a notch to sound more dominant, according to this study.

8. REMAIN CALM.

Whether you are using or responding to an analytic or emotional argument, keep it as relaxed as possible. “The best thing to do when in an argument is to stay calm and talk slowly—you can't yell and talk slowly at the same time,” Campbell says. “Forcing yourself to talk slowly helps to keep the emotions under control and your thoughts rational.” If that sounds like a challenge, it is: “This takes a lot of discipline, but it's a simple thing to focus on.”

9. PRACTICE YOUR DELIVERY.

Like most other skills, spending time arguing will make you better at it. Debate in high school, college, or in a professional-development context “should be viewed as a way to practice the skills of arguing,” Porrovecchio says. “You work to improve your technique, your content, your delivery; then use what you have learned in real world situations.” Porrovecchio says he’s seen his students become not just better debaters over time, but also “better public speakers and critical thinkers.”

10. REFRAME THE DEBATE.

Not all arguments have to be about being right, which some people define as winning. You might consider it a win if your opinion is valued and considered by the person you are disagreeing with—even if you don't change their mind. “Instead of the word argument, replace it with conversation. If you're just having a conversation, then winning is off the table, and a productive discussion can occur,” Campbell says.

11. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, WALK AWAY.

Sometimes it gets ugly, or the argument seems to be going in circles. If you’re not getting anywhere in a discussion, “ask your opponent directly: ‘Is there anything I can do to change your mind?’ If they say that nothing will change their mind, believe them, and walk away,” Ghuman says. Sometimes an argument is a draw—and that’s OK. You’ve won if you’ve learned something, Ghuman adds: “Healthy argument can expand your perspective and open your mind.”

10 Riveting Facts About Mars

Mars's dust storms can be global. In these images taken a month apart in 2001, the dust storm near the southern polar ice cap (left) soon enveloped the entire planet (right).
Mars's dust storms can be global. In these images taken a month apart in 2001, the dust storm near the southern polar ice cap (left) soon enveloped the entire planet (right).
NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS

Few celestial objects have fascinated humankind throughout history more than the Red Planet. For over a century, we've longed to know more about Mars and the beings that we speculated lived there. When NASA dispelled the notion of creatures scurrying along the rusty plains, it raised a more tantalizing prospect: that we might one day be the creatures that call Mars home.

Mental Floss spoke to Kirby Runyon, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and Tanya Harrison, the director of research for Arizona State University's NewSpace Initiative, to learn more about the place your kids might live one day.

1. A MARTIAN YEAR LASTS JUST UNDER TWO EARTH YEARS.

It takes 687 Earth days for the Red Planet make its way around the Sun. A Mars day—called a sol—lasts 24.6 hours, which would be a nuisance for the circadian rhythms of astronauts (but not as bad as a day on Venus, which lasts 5832 hours).

2. IT'S NOT AS HOT AS IT MIGHT LOOK.

Mars looks desert-hot—New Mexico with hazy skies, red because of its iron oxide soil—but is actually very cold, with a blistering hot sol being 70°F, and a cold sol a brisk -225°F. Its dust storms can be huge; in 2018, one storm grew so large that it encompassed the entire planet for more than a month. (You can see a similarly huge dust storm in the image above.)

3. MARS IS MUCH SMALLER THAN EARTH ...

Compared to Earth, Mars is a tiny Styrofoam ball, with a diameter just over half of ours and one-tenth of our mass. Its gravity will be an absolute nightmare for future colonists, at .38 that of their native planet. (That means a person weighing 100 pounds here would weigh just 38 pounds on Mars.)

4. ... AND ITS ATMOSPHERE IS MOSTLY CARBON DIOXIDE.

You won't want to get a breath of fresh air on Mars unless you're trying to suffocate: Its atmosphere is 95.32 percent carbon dioxide, with a little nitrogen and argon thrown in. (Earth's atmosphere, by contrast, is mostly nitrogen and oxygen.) When you do try to take that single, hopeless breath, the tears on your eyeballs, saliva in your mouth, and water in your lungs will immediately evaporate. You won't die right away, but you'll probably want to.

5. IT HAS TWO MOONS, BOTH WITH BETTER NAMES THAN OURS.

They're called Phobos and Deimos, which translate to Fear and Dread, respectively. They're shaped like potatoes and don't exactly fill the evening sky: Standing on the Martian surface, Phobos would appear to be about one-third the size of Earth's moon; Deimos would look like a bright star.

Future human Martians will have to enjoy Phobos while they can. The tidal forces of Mars are tearing Phobos apart; in 50 million years, the big potato will disintegrate.

In the meantime, Phobos is one of the stepping stones NASA plans to take on its journey to Mars. No part of human exploration of the Red Planet is easy, and before we land on Mars (and then have to figure out how to launch back into space and somehow get back to Earth), it's vastly easier to land on Phobos, do a little reconnaissance, and then take off and return home. As a bonus, on the journey to Phobos [PDF], astronauts can bring along hardware necessary for eventual Martian settlement, making the ride a lot easier for the next astronauts.

6. MARS IS HOME TO THE TALLEST MOUNTAIN IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM.

The tallest mountain on Earth, Mount Everest, is 29,029 feet tall. Olympus Mons on Mars is over 72,000 feet in height, making it the tallest mountain by far on any planet in the solar system.

Olympus Mons isn't the only extraordinary Mars feature: Mountaineers might also want to check out NASA's trail map for hiking the famous Face on Mars. If canyons are more your speed, you'll want to visit Valles Marineris. It is the size of North America and, at its bottom, four miles deep. (In the solar system, only Earth's Atlantic Ocean is deeper.) Once Earth's ice caps finish melting, you can always visit the ones on Mars. (If you have a telescope, you can easily see them; they are the planet's most distinctive features visible from your backyard.)

7. THE IDEA OF MARTIANS GOES BACK OVER A CENTURY.

That's partially because of popular fiction (War of the Worlds, the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells, sees a Martian invasion force invade England) and partially because of Percival Lowell, the famed astronomer who wrote prolifically on the canals he thought he was observing through his telescope, and why they might be necessary for the survival of the Martian people. (Mars was drying up.)

Though it's easy to dismiss such conclusions today, at the time Lowell not only popularized space science like few others, but left behind the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona—one of the oldest observatories in America and the place where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.

8. IF THERE ARE MARTIANS, THEY ARE MICROBES.

Today, scientists work tirelessly to unlock the complex geologic history of Mars, to determine whether life exists there today, or did long ago. "We think that Mars was most globally conducive to life around 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago," Runyon tells Mental Floss. "In the Mars geologic history, that's the end of the Noachian and toward the beginning of the Hesperian epochs." There may once have been a hemispheric ocean on Mars. Later, the world might have alternated between being wet and dry, with an ocean giving way to massive crater lakes. Where there's water, there's a good chance of life.

"If we found life on Mars—either extinct or current—that's really interesting," says Runyon, "but more interesting than that, is whether this life arose independently on Mars, separate from Earth." It is conceivable that meteorite impacts on Earth blasted life-bearing rocks into space and eventually to the Martian surface: "A second life emergence on Mars is not just a geological question. It's a biogeochemical question. We know that Mars is habitable, but we haven't answered the question of whether it had, or has, life."

9. NASA SPENDS A LOT OF TIME OUT THERE.

Mars hasn't hurt for missions in recent years, though scientists now warn of an exploration desert beyond 2020. But that doesn't mean we humans don't have eyes on the planet. Presently in orbit around the planet are the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which images and scans the planet; MAVEN, which studies its atmosphere; Mars Express, the European Space Agency's first Mars mission; MOM, the first Mars mission by the Indian Space Research Organization; the ESA's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which is searching for methane in the Martian atmosphere; and Odyssey, which studies Mars for water and ice signatures, and acts as a communications relay for vehicles on the ground.

Rolling around on the Martian surface are Curiosity and Opportunity—NASA missions both—which study Martian geology. Though the Russians and Europeans have tried mightily to do so, NASA is the only space agency to successfully land spacecraft on the Martian surface (seven times).

In November 2018, the InSight mission will land on Mars, where it will study the planet's interior. In 2020, NASA will land the Mars 2020 rover; where Curiosity studies Mars for signs of habitability, Mars 2020 will look for inhabitants.

"It is going to collect samples that will hopefully be brought back to Earth," says Runyon. "The three landing sites selected for Mars 2020 are Northeast Syrtis, Jezero Crater, and Columbia Hills within Gusev Crater, which is where the dead rover Spirit is currently sitting. Each of these sites is a hydrothermal environment dating from the Noachian-Hesperian boundary. These are some of the most perfect places to look for past signs of Martian life, and can help answer the question of whether life had a second genesis on Mars."

10. MARS IS CHANGING, BUT NOBODY KNOWS WHY.

"Most people don't realize how active Mars is," Harrison tells Mental Floss. "Other planets aren't just these dead worlds that are frozen in time outside of our own. There are actually things happening there right now." Imagery from the HiRISE and Context Camera instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have revealed such events as avalanches, sand dune erosion [PDF], and recurring slope lineae (flowing Martian saltwater).

Things are moving, but it's not always clear why. "There's a lot of material that has been eroded away," says Harrison. "We have entire provinces of the planet that look like they've been completely buried and then exhumed. And that's a lot of material. The big question is, where did it all go? And what process eroded it all away?" Curiosity might help answer the question, but to really understand the processes and history of the fourth rock from the Sun, we're going to need to send geologists in spacesuits. "You can't replace human intuition with a rover," Harrison says. "Looking at a picture on your computer is not the same as standing there and looking around at the context, stratigraphic columns, being able to pick up the rocks and manipulate them, take a hammer to things. So once humans land on the surface, it'll be kind of like the difference between what we knew about Mars from Viking and Mars Global Surveyor and then the revolution between Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Our view of what we think happened on Mars is going to completely change, and we'll find out that a lot of what we thought we knew was wrong."

A version of this story ran in 2017.

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